The Twist in the Tale by Catherine Czerkawska

Wordsworth's Couch - not very comfortable.
This month, I'm in vacant or in pensive mood, reflecting on reviews and reviewing. This is because I was mildly (but only mildly) irritated by a doozy of a review on Amazon for one of my books. Somebody or other really didn’t like it. And in a general sense that’s fine. As business guru Seth Godin says, sometimes you just have to shrug and say ‘in that case it’s not for you,’ and let it pass. Mostly, that’s what I do. And I’d never leave a comment on a bad review. It’s impossible to have an optimum number of sales and NOT get a few horribly negative reviews. There’s one somewhere on The Curiosity Cabinet by a woman who at least likes my book a bit better than her one star iron – but not a lot!

If you don’t believe me, just look up any massively successful and much loved author, and scroll down to the one star reviews. Sometimes they can be quite informative. Sometimes there’s a writer who comes very well reviewed, not to say hyped, a writer whose books I simply can’t get on with. Some of those one and two star reviewers on Amazon have actually bothered to do a real critical analysis of why they don’t like the book and occasionally I’ll find myself in agreement. I never add my two pennorth though, for the simple reason that if I don’t like a book after the first fifty pages, I simply stop reading, and there’s no way I’m going to review a book I haven’t read. I don’t have the time, I don’t have the inclination and I’m not in the business of slagging off my fellow authors for what is in all likelihood purely a matter of personal taste.

A colleague recently found a one star review on one of her novels because it was an eBook and the reader had taken a vow only to read paperbacks. So she gave it a single star because she couldn’t read it. That sort of behaviour is deeply unfair to the author but it makes the reviewer look so stupid that it’s hard to get really angry. What does irritate me though is what I have come to think of as the Roald Dahl effect. Don’t get me wrong. I love Roald Dahl. After all, my son fell asleep to a cassette tape of Danny Champion of the World every night for about a year. What’s not to like about that?

No, it’s his grown-up short stories that are the culprits. You know? Those volumes of excellent stories that all have a twist in the tale. They were televised. It caught on, big time. The leg of lamb murder weapon. The murderous landlady. The body in the lift. Women’s magazines started to demand short stories with a twist in the tale. Soon, every short story competition in every magazine, every writing group submission, every read-around, was flooded with short stories where the whole (and sometimes the only) point of the story seemed to be to deceive the reader into thinking it was about one thing, only to surprise them right at the end by another twist in the tale.

Now that’s all very well – essential even – for crime fiction. Perhaps even for horror and supernatural fiction too. Unless you’re writing the kind of crime fiction where we know the identity of the killer from the off, and the whole point of the story is for the detective/police person/ protagonist to problem-solve their way to a conclusion. Like Monk. I love Monk and his problem-solving. And I’ve no quarrel with any of that.

But there are some readers who have extrapolated from their perfectly legitimate taste for twist in the tale stories and now seem to think that every novel or story ever published has to have a plot in which you have no idea what’s going on until the last few pages when all is revealed in a blaze of astounding volte face revelation.

I don’t write that kind of book. Or that kind of story. I don’t think it’s mandatory to write that kind of book. Some of my all-time favourite novels are not that kind of book either.

I’ve no quarrel at all with people who don’t like the books I do write. What does bug me a bit is the kind of review that says ‘the plot was obvious’ when I’ve spent two years knocking my pan in writing a loving exploration of character, writing about somebody coming to terms with dreadful events, writing about how events in our lives colour and change us – but without ever really intending to deceive the reader into thinking this is one kind of story and then revealing right at the end that it is another. It isn’t. It was never intended to be. It isn’t what I do. And what’s more, sometimes the whole point is the terrible innocence of the narrator, when the readers can and should be able to see what is coming a mile off. But the narrator couldn’t.

Incidentally, Big Publishing used to have a term for this and probably still does. Agents too. They used to say a book was 'beautifully written but too quiet.' I spent a few years back in the nineteen nineties racking my brains, trying to figure out what the hell they meant, until a fellow writer who had been the recipient of the same kind of rave rejection pointed out that what they were really saying was that the book didn't have a stonking great plot with a completely unforeseen twist at the end.

Actually, I have done the plot twist thing once or twice. Much to my surprise, not everyone guesses the plot of The Curiosity Cabinet, the historical tale anyway. I was sure they would and I didn’t much mind about it, but some people have told me that they only understood it at the same time as poor wee Henrietta. That was a bonus but it wasn’t the raison d’être of the whole book.

And there is a very definite twist in the tale at the end of Bird of Passage. There’s a part of the story that pretty much everyone guesses, as they are intended to. But there’s another part of the story that I think hardly anyone does. I wasn’t striving officiously to write a twist though. I was focusing almost wholly on the character of Finn, and trying to find out why he was so troubled, and what his blurred memories of a terrible past might really mean. We don’t know the full extent of what he has forgotten and neither does he. The revelation came to me as it came to Finn and as it probably comes to the reader. But even then, the twist wasn’t the point. The troubling revelation was.

Anyway, I suppose what my little rant amounts to is this. As a reviewer – and I’ve reviewed professionally in the past and as a young writer given one or two unnecessarily scathing reviews of which I am now heartily ashamed – I think you really have to avoid reviewing the book you wish the writer had written. It’s a huge temptation but one best avoided. You have to stand back a little and review a book on its own terms and with a certain generosity of spirit. You don’t have to be fulsome in your praise. And if you think a book doesn’t quite succeed on its own terms then you’re perfectly within your rights to say so, explaining why. One or two past reviews of my plays that were by no means positive have given me pause for thought and definitely helped to make me a better playwright. Because I could see (once I simmered down a bit) that they were right. But if you don’t think you can achieve a modicum of impartiality or generosity, it’s perhaps better to pause for thought before you hit the submit button. So what do you think?

I think there's a good case to be made for reviewing your ironing board instead.

Catherine Czerkawska 


CallyPhillips said…
Nice post (and Emily Bronte's couch is better, but then she died on it) I'd add that while everyone is entitled to their opinion, opinion is not really enough for a worthwhile review. 100 people 'liking' an ironing board won't make me buy it (believe me, I've recently been reading 'reviews' for washing machines and dehumidifiers and heat/light fittings) what I want to know is does it do what it says on the tin. What it was designed for and what it is supposed to do. It doesn't matter if it doesn't work as a doorstop as long as it washes clothes etc.
Perhaps one should 'apply' this to book reviews. For me it comes down to author intentionality. As you point out, there's no point criticising a writer for lack of BIG PLOT or even 'obvious' plot when the book is not plot driven. Berating it for (here's one the of best examples) not being a book about BOOKIES because it's got a picture of a horse on the front and is titled 'The Bookie's Runner' -Brendah Gisby's incredibly poignant biography of his father... as you say, review the book the writer wrote, not the one you wished you read! This is the caveat emptor for the reader. It's for you to CHOOSE and if you don't always 'connect' with the writer perhaps consider you may have missed the point, or may not understand what they are trying to do. Fine, then you write a review saying 'I didn't understand this' but that's not really a useful review to other readers is it - but, no, this is the crunch. These days people think that a review is giving a personal opinion of their own likes and dislikes, not offering an appraisal of a work while accepting suthorial intention. It's why ebooks in general and 'indie' books in particular come in for so much stick. Not because they ARE all garbage but because people THINK the writers can't be any 'good' unless they are published by BIG 6 and so they feel it's valid for them to give their personal opinion whether they know what they're talking about or not. If I didn't know how to use an iron I wouldn't comment on whether it worked.. I certainly wouldn't say - this is rubbish I can't get any of my favourite programmes on it, but this is what book 'reviewers' do all the time. To blame? The culture that encourages people to a) believe that only the 'mainstream'/'top' brand is GOOD and b) the encouragement of people to just GIVE THEIR OPINIONS without realising that there's more to reviewing than personal opinion and there's more to writing a book than reading a book. That it's a two way communicative relationship and the writer offers their 'view' to the reader, the reader chooses to connect or engage and SOMETIMES, just sometimes it may be the reader who 'fails' in the relationship, not the writer. Ooops. In danger of taking over your rant! But it was a good point well made (your's, not mine) in this reviewer's opinion!!!
And of course the point I missed was that c) we should all wake up to the fact that historically, and today, 'reviews' have a lot to do with 'selling' a product - and the democratisation of the 'sales force' is not always good for things which are not just PRODUCTS. To 'sell' a product you need an informed sales force. But in the current market driven economy of stack em high, sell em cheap and convince folks that POINTS MEAN PRIZES and the 'STAR' system has any 'meaning' beyond selling STUFF well.... I'm off on another rant so I'll stop.
madwippitt said…
Yes, yes, yes and yes ... :-)
Nick Green said…
I often think that a massive twist is a sign that the author is deeply insecure about the quality of the rest of the story, so they stick a whopping great cherry on the top.

(Nearly all my books have massive twists).
Bill Kirton said…
A lovely post, Catherine - one which should be read by all writers, readers and reviewers. I have to add a quick example of your last point. Way back, in one of my radio plays, I was obsessed with the imagery of expansion and contraction. It fitted the theme and the characters and the 'message' I wanted to convey. The trouble was that it made me put my words in the characters' mouths. The review of it in The Listener (I told you it was way back) began 'This is a tiresome play about tiresome people'. And I agreed with it.
Dennis Hamley said…
What a terrific post, Catherine. I agree with you so completely about reviews. Someone asked me why I only seemed to give 4 and 5 star reviews on Amazon: wasn't I cheapening the system? Well, no. It's just that I don't see the point of giving fewer. All right,I only gave 3 stars to Margaret Oliphant but that was because while I recognised how beautifully The Open Door was written, I didn't see the qualities in it that you did and that was an honest difference of opinion and reaction. And I gave 1 star to Bill's brilliant Flinflan spoof in an attempt to carry the humour on a little more. I do worry that 'the Twist in the Tale' is fast becoming the sine qua non of the short story. I remember that a collection of short stories with that very same title by Jeffrey Archer was a few years ago issued by a major educational publisher (who should be ashamed) with a foreword from Archer trumpeting it as not only the secret of the short story but also that he was the only writer who could do it properly. Needless to say, the stories were dire. Also, I shamefully forget the details but wasn't there a national short story competition recently which was reported on by the Chair of the judging panel, someone of high reputation - though I don't recall who - saying that the twist was essential and it was disappointing that none of the entries had one? God help us.
God help us indeed, Dennis! I didn't hear that one, but whoever it was was plain wrong! But it's like an infection. That would rule out James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, William Trevor, Bernard MacLaverty. Don't these people actually read any good stories?
Anonymous said…
Oh gosh, yes to the whole *twist in the tale* thing. Really irritates me too when a reviewer talks about having figured out the plot by page 50 or so. Mine are intended to be lit fic, not detective fiction. It makes me just want to say, oh bully for you, have a gold star!
Love that, Viv! I feel the same. But you put it so well. It would be nice to be able to respond with that. Don't know how many times I've had to sit on my hands that are itching to reach the keyboard!
Nick Green said…
I love your comment too, Cally, about today's culture that hails the Personal Opinion as the gold standard of unimpeachable goodness. 'One person, one vote' may be fine when applied to politics, but it's not a good way to appraise the arts.
Lydia Bennet said…
As a crimewriter I like to supply the twists, but I write other genres. Thank you for an important post, Catherine, I'd not realised how much the tyranny of the twist had taken over to the point where people either brag or complain about 'guessing' the plot before the end. There can still be masses of suspense even if the end is known, anyway - I was in an agony of suspense during the film about the hijacked plane which landed near the Pentagon, desperate for them to somehow win and survive; Apollo 13 was a film where we all knew the end going in. so I totally agree with you, although, having sat through a lot of short story readings at lit events which consisted entirely of characters making cups of tea and rolling/lighting fags, while musing on their existential angst, there are times when you want something, anything, to happen, and long for a twist which will justify the life-minutes you've lost listening to bugger all!
I had just such an interchange only the other day - thinking about Cally's comment. Somebody who couldn't imagine that anything could be any good, even if it was published by a small publisher, never mind self publisher. For her, it was the Big Five or nothing. She had a completely closed mind and a touching faith in the role of the gatekeepers. I hate to think what her reviews will be like. Thanks to everyone for such interesting comments.
Susan Price said…
It's amusing to think of all those Ancient Greeks, leaving the first production of Oedipus Rex, saying, "Well, I saw that coming! Sophocles is SO predicable."
Lydia Bennet said…
yes, Susan, 'same thing happens in all the plays, people killing their fathers and marrying their mothers, you'd think there was some kind of widespread complex about it.'
Chris Longmuir said…
I'm afraid I do like twists in crime fiction and one of my favourite authors Jeffery Deaver is a master of them. However, crime fiction in terms of the whodunit has always been a guessing game between the author and the reader to see who comes to the solution first. When readers say to me they guessed who the killer was I always say that's OK, they are allowed to guess, and that if the author doesn't plant clues to allow them to guess then that author is cheating. The same with twists, they shouldn't come out of nowhere, the reader should be given a fair chance to spot them and it is down to the writer's expertise to keep them guessing. If there are no hints before hand then that is a cheat!
I rather like them in crime fiction as well. Especially the kind of clever plotting where there are various suspects and a good 'denouement'! Just don't think it has to apply to all kinds of other fiction . Agree about the cheating!
AliB said…
Hello Catherine - I agree so much with your post and the comments, especially in reviewing a book for what it is, which is why I prefer not to review books in genres where I'm out of my usual reading zone.
I also agree that a final twist should never be the 'raison d'etre' except in crime or thriller genres, and as for confidence-boosting cherries, well touche, I think! All the same I tend to see all novels as something of a mystery in which the reader is seeing a story come together/unravel with the author's help. the trick for the author is to reveal it at the right pace and in the right order. As Chris says, a revelation out of nowhere won't work, but I quite like the feeling of a little extra something near the end, a final wrinkle smoothed out, to add a bit of piquancy rather than dumbfounded surprise. And as it happens a book that did this recently for me was The Physic Garden (!) where the story was complete but something cropped up near the end which I hadn't thought of and which really added to the ending. It was not a matter of mechanistic plotting, just a careful ordering of how the story unfolded. Was I meant to have guessed? (avoiding spoilers) Well I didn't and I liked it that way. Not a big twist, but something nice in the bottom of the bowl. Very satisfying!
Ah thanks, Ali! No - you weren't meant to guess that bit! Although some people claim to. And like Chris, I don't mind if they do. I think the point is that we know something is coming, and in part we're with the older, knowing William and in part we're with the young naive and terribly trusting William. But really, I'm not at all sure that I was as conscious of it as all that. Maybe I was just telling the story. And you make a very good point - Chris too - because where the final twist of the knife, whatever it is, is an integral part of the story, then it works. But if it's an add on, for its own sake, then it doesn't. What an interesting discussion this post has provoked. Thanks, everyone!

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